Political MoJo

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for June 10, 2014

Tue Jun. 10, 2014 11:50 AM EDT

The Golden Falcons of the Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron touch down onto guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain where sailors await their arrival to help ensure stability and security in the Phillipine Sea. (US Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seamen Alonzo M. Archer)

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What Did My Government Do When I Was Taken Hostage in Iran?

| Sat Jun. 7, 2014 11:26 AM EDT

Yesterday I filed a lawsuit against the FBI, the CIA, and the State Department. I intend to persuade the government to release records that will reveal how it dealt with the imprisonment of Sarah Shourd, Josh Fattal, and myself in Iran from 2009 to 2011. The three of us were arrested near the Iranian border while on a hike in Iraq's Kurdish region, which we were visiting on a short trip from Sarah's and my home in Damascus. Sarah remained in prison for 13 months, and Josh and I for twice as long. For the two years that I was in prison, I wondered constantly what my government was doing to help us. I still want to know.

But my interest in these records is more than personal. Innocent Americans get kidnapped, imprisoned, or held hostage in other countries from time to time. When that happens, our government must take it very seriously. These situations cannot be divorced from politics; they are often extremist reactions to our foreign policy. Currently, Americans are being detained in Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, Cuba, and other countries.

What does our government do when civilians are held hostage? Sarah's, Josh's, and my family, like others in similar situations, were regularly assured by our leaders—all the way up to the Secretary of State and the President—that they were doing everything they could, but our families were rarely told what that meant. Why is this information so secret, even after the fact? It is important to know how the government deals with such crises. Is there a process by which the government decides whether or not to negotiate with another country or political group? How does it decide which citizens to negotiate for and which not to? Are the reassurances the government gives to grieving families genuine, or intended to appease them? Do branches of government cooperate with each other, or work in isolation?

Some will say disclosing such things only helps our enemies. This is a common defense of government secrecy. The CIA seems to be taking this approach with my request by invoking "national security" in its denial. This logic can be applied to almost anything related to foreign policy. If Congress had not publicly discussed the ins and outs of going to war with Syria, for example, it might by some stretch of the imagination have given our military an edge. But without having to defend their positions to the public, members of Congress might have come to a different conclusion and decided to go to war. Obstructing public discussion on how the government reacts to crises impedes democracy.

It has become commonplace for government agencies to do everything they can to muddle the transparency mandated by the law.

We are fortunate in this country to have the Freedom of Information Act, which allows citizens to access unclassified government records. The Act originated in 1955 during the Cold War, when there was a steep rise in government secrecy. It was strengthened after the Watergate scandal. But transparency has since eroded, to the point that federal agencies often don't abide by the terms of the FOIA without legal coercion. It's been almost a year since I first filed FOIA requests with the FBI and State Department for records about our case. I filed with the CIA six months ago. The law gives government agencies up to 30 business days to determine whether they will release records. So far, however, no records have turned up. I am not surprised by this. Without a lawsuit, I would not expect to receive anything for years, if at all.

Years can pass before the government gets around to releasing records in response to FOIA requests. Last year, for example, the State Department notified me that it was ready to release around 700 documents in response to a FOIA request I had filed four years prior. The request regarded an Iraqi sheikh who was receiving what amounted to bribes in the form of inflated construction contracts from the US military, a scheme I wrote about for Mother Jones in 2009. Despite the fact that the war is now over, and the records will be much less significant than they might have been at the time, I told State I would indeed like to see them. I am still waiting.

It has unfortunately become commonplace for government agencies to do everything they can to muddle the transparency mandated by the FOIA, to the point where only people trained to get around stonewalling have any chance of succeeding. Take my request to the FBI for records about our case. The Bureau responded to my initial request with its standard denial letter: "Based on the information you provided, we conducted a search of the Central Records System. We were unable to identify main file records." It's a standard response—I've received it before—but I was surprised to see it this time. The FBI visited my mom's home, spoke to my family repeatedly and they have no records?

In fact, the FBI letter is intentionally misleading. What they are saying is that they have failed to find a very particular type of records. As my attorney, Jeff Light, put it, the FBI "has main files on persons, event, publications, etc. that are of investigative interest to the Bureau. Imagine a file cabinet containing a series of folders. Each folder is titled with the name of a person, event, etc. When they are searching main files, they are searching the label on each folder. They are not searching any of the documents inside the folder.” In response, Light and I specifically named a long list of databases and records systems for the FBI to search. Nothing has turned up yet.

It is unfortunate that litigation has become a standard part of the FOIA process. It's also unfortunate that the government is not transparent with people entangled in political crises about what it is doing to help them. While I was in prison, my mother walked out of meetings with politicians, frustrated with their inaction. After Sarah came home, she also asked the government to tell her what it was doing, and got nothing. We asked again after I was released. I wish I didn't need to go to court to get an answer.

The CIA Finally Joins Twitter, After Years of Mining it for Intel

| Fri Jun. 6, 2014 5:49 PM EDT

The Central Intelligence Agency—which only recently kicked its nasty habit of torturing detainees for little or no actionable intelligence and overthrowing democratically elected foreign governments—is now officially on Twitter. The agency's account is verified. On Friday, @CIA sent its first tweet, which reads as follows (warningdorky spy humor ahead):

"Just remember: This is a messaging arm of a spy agency, not a silly channel for CIA Internet jokes," PolicyMic's Jared Keller wrote on Friday.

The CIA finally joined the Twitterverse after years of mining it for intel. Analysts at the agency's Open Source Center (who other agents jokingly refer to as "vengeful librarians") sift through millions of tweets, Facebook posts, and other public data to get a sense of the collective attitudes of groups and regions overseas. The "librarians" track up to five million tweets a day. "Yes, they saw the uprising in Egypt coming; they just didn't know exactly when revolution might hit, said the center's director, Doug Naquin," according to an Associated Press exclusive report in November 2011.

Nowadays, the State Department is actively trolling terrorists on Twitter. Let's see if the CIA can top that.

UPDATE, July 7, 2014, 5:14 p.m. ET:

smdh.

Ted Cruz Addresses Rally Organized By Doctor Who Says Gays Recruit Children

| Fri Jun. 6, 2014 11:36 AM EDT
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas)

Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz Cruz spoke at an anti-gay marriage rally on Thursday hosted by Steven Hotze, a controversial doctor who has told women that birth control would make them unappealing to men and has warned that equality for gays would be a stepping stone to child molestation. Hotze, who runs an alternative medicine practice in suburban Houston and is suing the Obama administration over the Affordable Care Act, organized the event through his political action committee, Conservative Republicans of Texas. Cruz was joined on stage fellow Sen. John Cornyn, and state Sen. Dan Patrick, the party's nominee for lieutenant governor.

As I reported in April, Hotze's opposition to gay rights stretches back to at least the early 1980s, when he told Third Coast magazine that gay people "proliferate by one means, and one means only, and that's recruiting. And they recruit the weak. They recruit children or young people in their formative years." With that, he was off:

Three years later, after overturning an anti-discrimination ordinance in Houston, Hotze organized a group of eight candidates he considered allies in the fight against homosexuality. He called them "the Straight Slate." His preferred mayoral candidate said that the best way to fight AIDS was to "shoot the queers." Hotze told a local newspaper reporter that he cased out restaurants before making reservations to make sure they didn't have any gay employees and became such a divisive figure in local politics that for a brief period the Harris County Republican Party cleaved in two.

More recently, his PAC spent big bucks to oppose Annise Parker, a Democratic candidate who would become Houston's first openly gay mayor in 2009. On Thursday, Cruz also signed onto an amicus brief in support of Hotze's lawsuit against Obamacare, which he contends is unconstitutional because it did not originate in the House. But Hotze is an unusual mascot for politicians who fear Obamacare has ruined the health care system, because he operates largely outside of it. An investigation by the Houston Press raised questions about his medical practice, noting that he had inflated his credentials and touted the healing powers of treatments such as colloidal silver—which can turn patients' skin permanently blue—which are not covered by health insurance and not backed up by studies.

Big Food Still Plans to Sue Vermont Over New GMO Labeling Law

| Fri Jun. 6, 2014 10:09 AM EDT

Last month, when Vermont passed a new law requiring food and beverage manufacturers to label genetically modified foods, Big Food went ballistic. The Grocers’ Manufacturers’ Association, a trade group that represents Monsanto, General Mills, Coca-Cola, and other giant food companies, warned that the labeling law—the first of its kind in the nation—was "costly" and "critically flawed," and vowed to sue the state to force it to scrap the measure.

At the heart of the debate is the question of whether states should be allowed to regulate food labeling. The GMA argues that any laws requiring manufacturers to label genetically modified food should come from the federal government—and only if the feds deem GM foods are a health risk. But Vermont lawmakers argue that the state should be able to move forward on its own. "We believe we have a right to know what’s in the food we buy,”  Peter Shumlin, the state's Democratic governor, said in a statement last month.

The GMA insists that genetically modified foods are perfectly safe and pose no risks to human health: “They use less water and fewer pesticides, reduce crop prices by 15-30 percent and can help us feed a growing global population of seven billion people,” the group noted in a press release. But Vermont lawmakers maintain the new law is more about transparency than health, and that customers have a right to know whether genetically modified organisms are in their food. There’s popular support for that idea: 79 percent of Vermonters support labeling genetically modified food, according to a recent poll conducted by the Castleton Polling Institute for VTDigger, a Vermont media outlet.

That polling doesn't seem to have affected the GMA's position. The group hasn't sued yet. But when I called to ask if the GMA still planned to sue Vermont, a GMA representative referred me to last month's statement, which promises a lawsuit "in the coming weeks." Get ready, Vermont—Big Food is coming for you.

Michigan GOP: Don't Say We Don't Understand Women—We Read Fashion Rags!

| Thu Jun. 5, 2014 5:25 PM EDT

Michigan Republicans have been accused of fighting a "war on women" ever since they passed a law requiring women to buy extra abortion insurance if they think they might get raped. Go figure.

On Thursday, three state House Republicans offered this rebuttal, in a tweet posted by Jake Neher of Michigan Public Radio Network:

That's Rep. Peter Pettalia, Rep. Roger Victory, and Rep. Ben Glardon reading Glamour and Harper's Bazaar—indisputable proof that they're in touch with the concerns of today's modern woman. Eat your hearts out, ladies.

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WATCH: The Bowe Bergdahl Taliban Prisoner Swap Will Keep the Conservative Conspiracy-Mill Going [Fiore Cartoon]

| Thu Jun. 5, 2014 1:22 PM EDT

Mark Fiore is a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist and animator whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Examiner, and dozens of other publications. He is an active member of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists, and has a website featuring his work.

Florida Governor Rick Scott to Attend Fundraiser at the Home of a Tax Cheat

| Thu Jun. 5, 2014 11:21 AM EDT

Update: Less than three hours after this story was published Thursday, Scott canceled the fundraiser.

Florida Governor Rick Scott (R) is in the midst of a tight reelection race, running neck and neck against former Republican governor Charlie Crist, who's now a Democrat. Scott has raised gobs of money to fuel his campaign—and apparently he isn't especially particular about where it comes from. On Saturday, he is scheduled to appear at a $10,000-a-person fundraiser at the Boca Raton home of James Batmasian, a powerful real estate developer and philanthropist in the state who also has done hard time for tax evasion.

In 2008, Batmasian pleaded guilty to charges that he'd failed to collect and pay about $250,000 in federal withholding taxes from employees of his Boca Raton investment company. He was sentenced to eight months in a federal prison, two years of supervised release, and fined $30,000. Batmasian, a Harvard-trained lawyer, also had his law license suspended as a result of the felony plea and is still unable to practice law in Florida. 

After his release from prison in South Carolina in 2009, he returned to Florida and his real estate empire. Since then, he's thrown some money around in Republican politics. He and his wife Marta attended the Boca Raton fundraiser for Mitt Romney in 2012, where the GOP presidential candidate made his infamous "47 percent" remarks and claimed that nearly half of Americans are mooches who don't take responsibility for their own lives. Marta has also contributed generously to GOP causes, including chipping in $50,000 to Romney's campaign.

Saturday, the Batmasians will be hosting an event for Scott, who has spent a good part of his time in office battling poll ratings that rank him as one of the most unpopular governors in the state's history. Having an ex-felon as a fundraiser probably won't hurt Scott's reputation much. Scott has his own baggage to contend with. Before getting into politics, he founded and ran a company, HCA, which committed one of the biggest health care frauds in the nation's history. In 2000—a few years after Scott had been forced out of the firm—HCA paid out a $1.7 billion-with-a-b fine after being investigated by the Justice Department for Medicare fraud. That makes Batmasian's felonious past look like small potatoes. 

Watch: Freaked out NRA Scrambles From "Weird and Scary" to "We're Sorry"

Wed Jun. 4, 2014 4:54 PM EDT

In an extraordinary move last Friday first reported by Mother Jones, the National Rifle Association laid into a group of open-carry gun activists in Texas for acting "downright weird" and "scary"—but less than 24 hours after our report, with the enraged activists cutting up their NRA membership cards, the gun lobby beat a quick retreat, insisting that Friday's lengthy statement was all just a big "mistake." What's going on here? Mother Jones senior editor Mark Follman explains:

For more of Mother Jones' award-winning investigative reporting on guns in America, see all of our latest coverage here, and our special reports.

Neo-Confederate Ally Chris McDaniel Moves One Step Closer to Winning Mississippi's Senate Race

| Wed Jun. 4, 2014 12:01 PM EDT

For months, conservatives have thrown their money and might behind Mississippi state Senator Chris McDaniel in an effort to defeat longtime Sen. Thad Cochran in the state's GOP Senate primary. Tea party activists swooned over McDaniel as the candidate who, in a year of failed challenges from the right, could succeed in knocking off a GOP incumbent. Mississippians went to the polls on Tuesday and gave McDaniel a slight edge over Cochran. A run-off is likely. With a fired-up base behind him, McDaniel is in a solid position to defeat the six-term senator.

As Mother Jones has reported, McDaniel is a southern conservative with a controversial track record. Last summer, he delivered the keynote address at an event hosted by a chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a neo-Confederate group that, as my colleague Tim Murphy wrote, "promotes the work of present-day secessionists and contends the wrong side won the 'war of southern independence.'" McDaniel spoke at past Sons of Confederate Veterans-affiliated events, according to a spokesman for the group.

From 2004 to 2007, McDaniel hosted a syndicated Christian conservative radio program, Right Side Radio. Once, McDaniel weighed in on gun violence in America by blaming "hip-hop" culture. "The reason Canada is breaking out with brand new gun violence has nothing to do with the United States and guns," he said in a promotional sampler for the radio show. "It has everything to do with a culture that is morally bankrupt. What kind of culture is that? It's called hip-hop." He went on:

Name a redeeming quality of hip-hop. I want to know anything about hip-hop that has been good for this country. And it's not—before you get carried away—this has nothing to do with race. Because there are just as many hip-hopping white kids and Asian kids as there are hip-hopping black kids. It's a problem of a culture that values prison more than college; a culture that values rap and destruction of community values more than it does poetry; a culture that can't stand education. It's that culture that can't get control of itself.

McDaniel also used his radio show to defend the efficacy—despite reams of evidence saying otherwise—of torture as a way to gather intelligence.

In April, McDaniel raised eyebrows when he appeared on a different radio show, "Focal Point," hosted by the Bryan Fischer, an top official at the rabidly anti-gay American Family Association. Here's a brief rundown of Fischer's penchant for bomb throwing:

In March, Fischer told his listeners that while he didn't think President Obama is the antichrist, "the spirit of the Antichrist is at work" in the Oval Office. He has said that people turn to homosexuality (which he'd like criminalized) when the Devil takes over their brains. He once called for a Sea World Orca whale to be Biblically stoned after it killed its trainer. He said the secretarial job in his office is "reserved for a woman because of the unique things that God has built into women." Even some Republicans have distanced themselves from Fischer—at the 2011 Values Voters Summit in Washington, DC, Mitt Romney condemned Fischer's "poisonous language."

Mark your calendars: A McDaniel-Cochran run-off would take place on June 24.